Has Crass F1 Commercialism Turned Too Crass?

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in at 10/02/2009 05:49:00 PM
I've been an avid follower of Formula One racing ever since I was an eight-year-old thumbing through my dad's old copies of Road & Track in search of Grand Prix reports. Way back then, F1 wasn't yet the truly global sport it is today. Live TV coverage was mostly limited to Europe and Latin America. In recent years, of course, there has been a great eastward movement of race events: Abu Dhabi, Bahrain, Istanbul, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, and Shanghai. F1 goes where governments keen on sporting showcases and fans keen on viewing the unmatched spectacle of fast cars, superyachts, private jets, and (sorry female readers) pit babes. You know, the stuff of a young man's dreams.

However, difficult times in the car industry has led to pullouts by manufacturers Honda and BMW. There are still notable names in there including the granddaddy of all participants, Ferrari. About a year ago, rumors were circulating that Ferrari wanted to get rid of their current lead driver, the furiously fast Finn Kimi Raikkonen--who won his first championship in 2007 in his first year for Ferrari after replacing the legendary Michael Schumacher. 2008 was odd for his less heralded teammate Brazilian Felip Massa was challenging for the world title up to the last race before being pipped by a point by McLaren's Lewis Hamilton. It was then that rumours started about Ferrari angling to have the Spanish world champion Fernando Alonso on board.

Now here comes the crass commercialism part. Spain's Banco Santander is the largest Eurozone bank in terms of market capitalization. In 2007 it began a prominent advertising deal with the McLaren team after Fernando Alonso moved there after his two championship-winning years at Renault. Unfortunately for Santander, Alonso moved back to Renault in 2008 after falling out with McLaren, leaving the Spanish firm advertising with an Alonso-less McLaren. Late last year, however, there were already rumblings about Santander moving its ad dollars to Ferrari, with Santander hinting heavily that they would like to be reunited with Alonso at the Scuderia:
Spanish sponsor Banco Santander will move its backing from McLaren to Ferrari after the 2009 Formula One season, the bank's boss Emilio Botin has confirmed. "Santander will be with Ferrari in 2010, yes," he is quoted as saying by the Spanish newspaper Diario AS. Botin also made clear his desire to reunite the Santander logo with the car driven by Fernando Alonso, after the former double world champion left McLaren at the end of last year.

"Alonso is the best driver in the world and we would like to work with him, but that's not something that depends only on us," he insisted. Ferrari's current race drivers Felipe Massa and Kimi Raikkonen are both contracted to the Italian team for 2009 and 2010.
Fast-forward to the past few days and we receive news that, no, Kimi Raikkonen will not be driving for Ferrari for 2010 and that Alonso will. Raikkonen isn't a particularly loqacious chap as anyone who's watched him speak knows. However, he isn't beating around the bush about the reasons why Ferrari asked him to depart a year earlier. From ITV-F1:
[Ferrari team boss] Stefano Domenicali has dismissed Kimi Raikkonen's insinuation that the Finn was dropped in favour of Fernando Alonso at the behest of major new Ferrari sponsor Santander.

Ferrari announced yesterday that Alonso's long-rumoured Ferrari move would happen in 2010 and that Raikkonen's contract had been terminated early by mutual agreement. Raikkonen implied that his on-track performances had nothing to do with his departure.

"I know more or less the reason," he said. "It’s nothing to do with my racing or anything what I do in the team. It’s just purely some other reasons." When asked if the arrival of Spanish banking giant Santander was a factor, Raikkonen replied: "You need to ask the team."
I am no authority on the skill level of F1 drivers. Still, asking a former world champion to make way for a double world champion seems to be like splitting hairs to me as either would do a fairly respectable job with a decent car. There is no age factor here as 29-year-old Raikkonen is only a year older than Alonso. Yes, it certainly looks like a big new sponsor at Ferrari has pulled the strings to make its sponsorship jibe--and a Spanish two-time champion at that.

I tend to look at the F1 sideshow as part and parcel of the attraction: outgoing FIA President Max Mosley having filmed S&M misadventures, Flavio Briatore ordering Alonso's former Renault teammate Nelson Piquet Jr. to crash his car to secure an Alonso win last year in Singapore and getting banned from the sport, etc. However, it's something else to ditch a world champion at a sponsor's behest. F1 commercialism may have indeed become too crass when sponsors, not teams, call the shots even on performance-affecting decisions.